JSTOR is collaborating with the Frick Collection and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a pilot project funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to understand how auction catalogs can be best preserved for the long-term and made most easily accessible for scholarly use. Auction catalogs are vital for provenance research as well as for the study of art markets and the history of collecting. While scholars are highly interested in them—with the Frick and the Met noting daily use of their catalogs—libraries face a range of challenges with respect to their auction catalog collections, including preservation concerns and shelf space constraints.
About Auction Catalogs
This pilot project will digitize and preserve a small set of English language auction catalogs dating from the 18th through the early 20th century, while examining how best a more extensive effort might be undertaken. The catalogs are vital for research into the provenance and attribution of particular art works, the creation of catalogue raisonnés, as a source for high-quality images, the study of art markets and the history of taste and collecting, and as a window into historical events. Both the Frick and the Met note that their patrons use their catalogs on a daily basis. While catalogs that date back to the 18th Century tend to be in good condition, thanks to superior paper quality, those from the 19th through early 20th Centuries are deteriorating relatively quickly because of the less expensive acidic paper they were printed on.
As few catalogs before the mid-20th Century are indexed, the ability to conduct a full-text search would “unlock” content that is currently difficult to find. Also, an online environment would create new opportunities to associate the catalogs with relevant material. For instance, descriptions of art objects could be linked to photographs of those objects across a range of resources, such as ARTstor and Google Images.
For the catalogs that have been indexed, links could be enabled from databases such as SCIPIO (an online union catalog of auction catalog records) to the full text. Getty’s Provenance Index, which tracks the provenance of art items from 1640-1850, could also link to the relevant catalogs. Further, in certain subfields, such as African and Oceanic art, catalogs are repositories of significant scholarship and are a necessary supplement to the sparse journal coverage.
To enhance access to content, JSTOR is developing new tools for digitization, such as capturing handwritten annotations that document the lots’ buyers and prices. New tools linking resources and allowing authorized users to contribute information will provide opportunities to enhance content.